Weekly Review — March 20, 2001, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

After a heavy lobbying campaign by the electric industry, President George W. Bush broke a campaign promise and decided not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, humiliating Christie Whitman, his EPA administrator, and effectively killing the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change. The President said that he was worried about an energy crisis and that he wasn’t entirely convinced that global warming was real. OPEC decided to cut production by 4 percent in order to keep oil prices high. North and South Korea exchanged mail for the first time since the Korean War. Apparently offended by President Bush’s comments last week about dear leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea cancelled peace talks with South Korea and denounced the United States as a “nation of cannibals.” South Korean scientists discovered over 100 endangered species thriving in the Demilitarized Zone along the border with North Korea. Russia said it would again sell arms to Iran, causing some Russians to wonder whether the weapons would end up in the hands of Islamicterrorists within their own borders. President Vladimir Putin was said to be off in Siberia hunting wolves. Iranian president Mohammad Khatami called for more democracy and freedom; within hours, Iranian security forces arrested forty pro-democracy activists. General Augusto Pinochet of Chile was released on bail pending his trial for accessory to murder and kidnapping. Chechen terrorists hijacked a Russian plane and flew it to Saudi Arabia, landing in the holy city of Medina. An American navy fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on American troops in Kuwait, killing six. Khalid Abu Elba, the Palestinianbus driver who ran down and killed eight Israelis at a bus stop last month, testified in court. “I am not sorry,” he announced. Israel relaxed the blockade of the West Bank town of Ramallah, changing it, in the official jargon, from a “suffocating blockade” to a “breathing blockade.”

Stocks went down; President Bush said he was “concerned that a lot of Americans’ portfolios have been affected.” His daughter Jenna was photographed smoking a cigarette, apparently drunk. An appeals court upheld the Texas antisodomy law in a case involving two Houston men who were arrested for having sex in their own home. Scientists confirmed that people are able to repress unwanted memories. President Bush made the TV news when he bumped his head getting into Air Force One.California’sRepublican Party was trying to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger to run for governor.A man in Ghana was shot dead while testing a magic spell that was supposed to make him bulletproof; villagers severely beat their incompetent witch doctor.The Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy held its 28th annual convention in Las Vegas, Nevada.Democrats, who lately have been raising record amounts of soft money, were worried that campaign-finance reform might actually pass this year.President Vicente Fox of Mexico said that he would “eradicate torture forever,” even though it has been a standard part of Mexican justice for centuries, most recently with equipment purchased from the United States.Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji apologized for the school explosion that killed 38 young children who were making fireworks.The head of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party was forced to resign after Internet journalists posing as arms dealers videotaped him accepting a bribe.England’s Princess Ann, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, pled guilty to driving 93 mph in a 70 mph zone last summer; the princess just kept driving after she saw the police car flashing its lights at her speeding Bentley, assuming, she said, that it was offering to escort her.

Forty-six thousand pounds of chicken blocked traffic on a Houston freeway after a truck turned over; the driver lost control while lighting a cigarette; dozens of drivers stuffed boxes of processed chicken products into their cars, ignoring warnings about contamination. Aventis CropScience reported that 430 million bushels of American corn are contaminated with StarLink, its genetically modified corn, which is unfit for human consumption, much more than the 70 million bushels previously reported. Coca-Cola’s chief executive officer told a British newspaper that he would not be happy until people can turn on their taps and get Coke instead of water. Epidemiologists think the current hoof-and-mouth epidemic in England may have started with contaminated swill fed to pigs in Heddon-on-the-Wall; leftover airline food from a country affected by the disease might have been in the swill. The United States banned imports of European animals and animal products. Burger King recalled 400,000 Rattling, Paddling Riverboat toys after they were determined to be a choking hazard; McDonald’s recalled 234,000 toys last week for the same reason. Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban sacrificed 100 cows to atone for being so slow to destroy ancient stone statues of the Buddha. The bones of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the former president of the American Atheists, were identified, as were those of her son and granddaughter. The bones were found on a ranch in Texas; the bodies were burned, their legs removed, and stacked in a shallow grave. A Russian urologist successfully reconstituted a coffin maker’s penis after it was cut into six pieces by a circular saw. Two fertilityscientists based in the United States announced that they expected to grow the first human clone within two years. Seven-year-old Regan Muse convinced her father, a state representative from Maine, to introduce legislation banning elephants from circuses. A North Dakota man was convicted of “contact by bodily fluids” and sentenced to five years in prison for urinating on a deputy sheriff’s leg. Scientists were testing the use of LSD and other hallucinogens to treat mental illness. A man in Beverly, Massachusetts, was arrested for threatening to kill his girlfriend with a homemade bazooka that shoots potatoes.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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